In olden days, how common was it for people to enter marriage with literally no clue what sex was?

In one of the Laura Ingalls books, Laura’s daughter, Rose Wilder, asked her (Laura) how babies are made. And Laura stammered and got flustered, before eventually saying, “You’ll find out when you get married.”

How common was it in the olden days (olden meaning anywhere from thousands of years B.C. up to the 1800s) for men and women to go into marriage with literally no knowledge of what sex was or how it worked? (as opposed to, say, someone who does know but abstains from sex until their wedding night)

And if there was any such education, how did the teaching of the birds-and-bees differ from era to era (ancient Babylon/Rome/Egypt vs. Middle Ages vs. 1800s America)?

I would have thought that anyone growing up around domestic animals would kinda know where babies come from.

Here’s a cite, although I’m not sure how reliable it is (there’s a bibliography at the end, but it’s on a site called I include it to cite the obvious: Rose Wilder lived on a working farm, right? It’d be a simple child indeed who didn’t notice what the dogs and the cows did, and how puppies and calves resulted, or who couldn’t extrapolate.

Most of humanity was rural; and in the cities there were roaming dogs. It’s extremely unlikely that someone could approach the marriage bed with no idea what to do.

Edit: the cite does include this sentence:

but I am deeply skeptical that such events actually happened. They sound more like urban legends that reflect social anxiety, specifically anxiety around urbanization. Here’s what Snopes has to say.

Would people connect the copulation with the birth? They don’t happen so close together.

I’ve heard that in ye olden days people were much less precious about hiding the realities of sex from the children, because most families lived in small one-room dwellings with little or no privacy. Everybody knew what everyone else in the family was up (or down) to. That Little House on the Prairie probably did not have a separate, private master bedroom.

Here’s a slate article:

Short version: every culture recognizes that sex leads to babies, although their explanations are sometimes supernatural (e.g., the Catholic church believes that once an egg is fertilized, an immaterial soul is created within it by God).

My life is my cite. :slight_smile:
I grew up in farm country, most of my school buddies were farmers, and the number of kids that had no idea of human sexuality was shocking! The questions, the misinformation, I heard! Sure they could tell you about breeding cows and hogs, but that doesn’t carry over into humans. And chicken breeding really doesn’t!

Now this was a few years before they actually got married, so they might have picked up some more accurate information. But, and this is just opinion, I think there are adults today around my age that don’t understand sex beyond “put tab A into slot B.” Oh we don’t talk about it at work, but once in a while someone will say something and I’m all “what?!”

There was also, in general, the sexual repression of periods like the Victorian era that led to all sorts of strange behaviours. The presumption has long been that John Ruskin was shocked by the sight of his wife’s pubic hair, but that’s been disputed; whatever the truth, this Victorian marriage was never consummated:

… according to some sources, Michael Jackson followed in the same path:

Incidentally, in case anyone think I have excessive prurient interests, the Michael Jackson story was news to me – I just came across it while Googling for the John Ruskin story!

I imagine that might scare a lot of people!

I might offer my own realization. My mother sat me down to explain “the facts of life”. I was absolutely astonished. I said, “But… but that’s fucking!”

I was quite aware of intercourse as well as foreplay. I knew about various positions and some things that women liked (I’m male). But I had no idea it was in any way connected with reproduction.

Not quite on-point, but close …

I have heard / read stories of modern OBs & GPs dealing with infertile young couples. Who when the doc asks them how, when, where, etc., they’re having sex, they describe having sex as they’ve learned it from pornos.

Sigh. No kids, you can’t get pregnant from a facial. No matter how many vids show that as the culmination of “good” sex.

Urban legend? Most probably. But has it occurred at least once to somebody somewhere? Probably.

The WWW: the greatest disinformation machine ever invented. Perhaps including this very post! :wink:

I didn’t know those two words could be used in that order together. TIL. :wink:

My mother took a pretty shrewd approach. Being a biologist, she taught the birds and bees to us using the most boring, scientific-looking, organ diagrams one could possibly use and described sex in the most boring, un-interesting terms possible. The result being kids who knew how reproduction worked but thought it as dreadfully boring as learning multiplication tables.

In various environs children can be very isolated and even if they’ve seen educated fleas do it they might not get all the details right. But total cluelessness doesn’t seem likely if they’ve ever spoken to other children outside earshot of grown ups. Once children are aware of the physical procedure it’s the main topic of conversation they want to have with other kids.

I can’t speak for others but in my childhood this was NOT a topic I wanted to discuss with other kids.

No idea about human sexuality, or no idea that putting tab a into slot b results in pregnancy? I suppose my parents probably said something about the relationship between the guinea pigs chasing each other around and the resulting piglets, but i don’t remember what they said, and I certainly did know that that’s where babies came from.

(And I really didn’t know as much as I should have about human sexuality. But tab A, slot B, babies? Yeah, I knew that much.)

Yeah–I’ve spent my working days around kids for the past sixteen years, and I can attest that it’s not the main topic of conversation, nor was it when I was a kid. It gets talked about (usually when they think we can’t hear), but childhood is full of a lot of interesting immediate experiences that get talked about way, way more.

Almost certainly apocryphal, but there’s more than one joke going around about a couple trying and failing to get pregnant, and then after some digging by the doctor that results in comic explanations, it turns out that the couple was doing it in the butt. ::rimshot::

Meanwhile, as a data point I offer this tidbit that I learned years ago watching a documentary about the making of Sesame Street. One of the women who created it (she would have been c. 55-60 in c. 1965) was talking about her childhood. One day, when she was about ten, her father announced that she was going to live with Aunt Sophie in South Dakota until further notice, with no explanation, and put her on a train. Eight months later she was back home, and had a new baby sibling.

Oh indeed!

When discussing sex, being wrong was worse than not knowing at all. You’d get harassed mercilessly if you were wrong, and only somewhat if you just didn’t know.

Of course, there’s no way of knowing at that age if the harassers actually knew either, but they acted like they were always right, and they were meaner.

One day on the bus, one of the mean kids tried to “get” me. He said, “is Fred’s dog there a boy dog or a girl dog?” Now I could see that the dog had what we later would describe as visible external genitalia, so I said “boy”, but then he was all “why?”. Then doubt! What if there was something I didn’t know? A trick question, maybe! So I punted. “Because Fred told me it was a boy!” Safe victory! My tormentor was flummoxed! I lived to learn another day! :slight_smile:

Now that’s repressive.

Almost makes me wonder if the Sesame woman’s father’s wife was pregnant or if somebody else was. Which also leads me to some curiosity about the backstory of the person the Sesame woman thinks of as her mother. Lots of ways for “non-traditional” family setups to be arranged and then need to be covered up when a socially awkward pregnancy results.

Sure be nice when our society gets past all its squeamishness about this stuff. I know I won’t live to see it. Though we are making progress is some pockets of our society. Meanwhile the forces of reactionary Prudery are fighting a desperate rearguard action to reverse the last 50 years (and ideally in their POV the last 2,000 years) of progress.